Hummingbird

What with Rufus posting that bit about Humpford and Henri suggesting submissions for Doublethink, I thought I’d throw in my two cents worth of fiction. Actually, it’s cheaper than that. I wrote it a couple years ago, so while I’m not really looking for suggestions, I hope you enjoy it.

Bauer had held onto the idea of moving back into his childhood home for at least a couple of years. Maybe he’d always had it, or at least since his mother had sold the place when his younger sister had moved out back in 1985. A few weeks before he’d been making one of his annual drives around the old neighborhood during a free afternoon, and when he saw the ‘For Sale’ sign by the mailbox – same post, different box, he’d noticed for who knew how many times – he’d driven straight into the driveway rather than follow the arterial turn down towards the Steinberg and the Conroy houses, still named by him for people who hadn’t lived in the neighborhood much longer than his own family.

The current owner, an accountant who’d bought the house in 1997, had been happy to show him around the home, Bauer never letting on that he’d actually lived there himself twenty years ago. He had the first agent he reached at John L. Scott make an offer on the old home, and when that was refused he decided to just meet the asking price without any bargaining. It wasn’t about money to begin with, so he let the accountant have his way. They closed the sale on a Wednesday and on Friday he was back in the house tearing up the carpet in the accountant’s office, his sister’s bedroom.

He had lunch delivered by an Indian restaurant that hadn’t been there twenty years ago and ate while staring out in silence at the backyard. It was a big yard, bounded on two sides by the edge of a green belt and on the third by a ten foot wooden fence, put in by his father about a year before he’d moved out, to separate their yard from the small marijuana crop growing in the neighbor’s. Looking at the backyard gave Bauer an idea, or rather it gave him the will to act on an idea he’d been nursing for years, and so he made a couple of phone calls. The first was to his friend Mike, one of the Conroys who’d lived four houses down on the right. Mike seemed happy enough to hear from him, although he was used to hearing from him every few months, and if he thought it was strange that Bauer had bought back the house he’d grown up in he never let on. They hung up after promising each other a game of golf. This was just a warm-up call.

He was happy to see her, and Laura looked pleased enough to see him, however awkward it might be. After getting the call from him she’d driven all the way down from Everett that very afternoon, which was a lot to do for a first boyfriend she hadn’t seen at either of the reunions, let alone in private, let alone without her husband in tow. She said that she was making a trip to Seattle that afternoon anyway, so it would be easy enough to drop by. He somehow doubted this was true, although he certainly wouldn’t fault her for making something like that up. He offered her some of the Chicken Marsala, but she declined. Then he asked if she wanted anything to drink, realizing only as he spoke that he only had the soda that was delivered with the food. So he had nothing to actually give her.

“What do you have?”

Looking over at the sink he was able to say, “Well … water, I guess.”

“Yeah, sounds okay.”

And of course there was nothing to pour it in.

“I was just being polite anyway,” she said.

He briefly wondered whether he should offer her the rest of the diet Dr. Pepper, then came to his senses and left well enough alone.

He asked how Steve was, and she said fine – he was getting back from a conference in Los Angeles in the evening, so she couldn’t stay long. Maybe this was true as well, although he wouldn’t fault her for making that up either. Steve was a cop, like her own father, and Bauer wondered what kind of conference a policeman would go to. He didn’t ask.

After standing in the kitchen exchanging small talk for a few minutes he showed her around the place; first the garage, where his grandfather’s workbench still stood after being inherited by his mother in the early 70’s. It had been brought over from St. Louis by a great-grandfather who had emigrated from South Africa after the Boer War, and since the bench had made another kind of journey through several owners, Bauer was strangely, even happily surprised to have gotten it back. Back in the early 80s, in the height of the crisis and the debate about divestment, he’d been ashamed to have it in the garage. Ashamed that he’d had a family with a history in South Africa – on the wrong side. He stared at it again as he and Laura stood in the doorway. Such a solid thing. He wondered wildly – because had wondered already so many times before – what exactly had that bench borne witness to? He had always imagined such bloody, violent crimes, and now they came to him again unbidden. But in what reality was the blackened block actually anchored? Wood? History? The present – now? What was history but the now of a hundred years ago? Where would it end – how would the thing finally be destroyed? It was utterly inscrutable, like a shadow created without an eclipse.

“Well, okay then … that’s the garage, I guess!”

Only then did he realize that Laura hadn’t been caught up in the same old thoughts.

They moved into the living room where as teenagers they had once spent so much time together, looking out at Canadian geese landing in the backyard for a breather on their way south. Once he’d even seen a beaver ambling out of the creek for a twig that seemed to fit its needs. That had been in the fall; now it was May and twenty-five years later, the overgrown garden was in bloom, and neither goose nor gander or beaver was anywhere in sight.

Laura shifted her weight a number of times before walking out of the space where the couch had once been and stood with her back against the far wall, by the fireplace. Only then did he realize how uncomfortable she was in the room, and felt like an oaf for asking her there in the first place.

“Let me show you what I’m doing in the back.”

They walked down the hallway past his former bedroom without a word, but peaked into the main bathroom to make a show of interest. Same crack in the mirror, he noticed for the first time.

“Remember the bathtub full of fish?” she asked, laughing a little. “I thought your mom was going to kill you when the aquarium broke!” This eased the tension somewhat. It was good to hear her laugh, one of the things he’d always enjoyed about her most.

“Yeah, those poor fish. Well, most of them made it.” He saw again a Fringetail flipping and flopping on top of the soaking carpet, gills straining at the air all around with what Bauer had even then sworn was a desperate look in its eyes. “Bulging, even for fish eyes,” the young man had said. Bauer remained silent for a moment.

“Anyway, I’ll show you what I’m working on in the back room – Stephanie’s room. You remember.” This seemed to be a relatively neutral space in the house for Laura, and she seemed a little more at ease. After they had both stood in the entrance to the room for a moment, he walked over by the window where the hardwood floor had been exposed. She stood on top of the underside of the carpet that had been pulled up. In turning it into an office, the accountant had of course changed a number of things, and since she’d never spent much time there in the first place, he proceeded to tell her about some of the changes.

“In the first place, there was a kind of pink shag rug in here when it was Stephanie’s room. Okay for a young girl, I guess, but I can see why he’d want to change it out. And the wallpaper matched the carpet – you can still see some of it in the closet here.”

Bauer opened up the closet door as widely as possible to show her a section of wallpaper hanging dog-eared, right in the center.

“Why is it in the closet?” she asked

“Well, that’s mom for you.”

After a pause she said, “I like the hummingbirds.” The print consisted of pink ribbons running vertically for two-foot stretches, each separated from one another by a flower about the size of his palm. Next to each flower was a tiny hummingbird, its wings nicely blurred and the tail feathers pulled back under the body, so that it looked like a floating bass clef. Even in the the closet it was light enough to see the white throat, the green, tessellated feathers of its arched body, and the long beak reaching into the blossoming flower for nectar.

“Looks like you have bees.”

“Huh?”

She nodded towards the window behind him. He turned out of the closet to see what she was motioning towards and saw the huge rhododendron. He remembered the plant when it was young and realized that it must now be about as old as himself. Hanging from one of the branches next to the window was a bees’ nest, nearly a sphere, just the size and shape of basketball and with a surface that looked just as leathery.

“Jesus, you’re right.”

“It looks like the Death Star.” From the way the bees were hovering on the other side of the side of the nest, Bauer had a pretty good idea of where the entrance was. What was a wonder was how the rhododendron could support it. He looked down the length of its branch and guessed that in fact it was sagging quite a bit. But it was hard to tell.

“Funny how I missed that during the tour. I think I saw something in the garage for it.”

Without saying anything else he ran out of the room, leaving Laura to contemplate the bees through the protection of the glass. While staring out the window she tried to remember Bauer when he’d been fifteen. He’d been just about as tall has he was now, though certainly thinner, and with much longer hair. He’d been so self-assured for his age. The years hadn’t been overly kind to him, although he certainly had enough money. Something else seemed to have worn on him. He’d been married briefly, then divorced, and had never remarried. The phone call had been right out of the blue. And who buys the house they grew up in? She was staring at the hummingbird in the closet when she heard a shout.

She turned and saw Bauer through the window, aiming at the bees’ nest with an aerosol can as long as a night stick. He was leaning to his right with an outstretched arm to get around one of the branches. He waited for her acknowledgement, as if he’d only wanted to make sure that she’d seen him through the glass, and then turned his attention back to the nest. He pressed down on the button at the top and let loose a stream that was strong enough to force back his hand. The concentration was just as she’d remembered it, and it occurred to her that it was this expression that he’d wanted to be sure she had seen. She understood that he needed to be seen like that and smiled back even after he’d looked away, but she couldn’t help but think of the day the aquarium broke. And of a Fringetail flipping itself over on a soaking wet carpet, its eyes bulging out on either side as if it were saying, “Help me.”

Comments

  1. Henri Young says

    Good stuff. I want more.

  2. Rufus McCain says

    Yeah. But this seems different from the last time I read it. Did you revise it?

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